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Workplace Checks Catch Illegal Aliens

In test program, employers transmit new-worker data to INS to see if documents are valid

By David MutchStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1996



BOSTON

At IBP, a meat-packing company in Dakota City, Neb., managers are in a bind whenever they need to hire more workers.

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The industry has long attracted hordes of immigrant workers, many of them illegal.

"We want to abide by the law," says company spokesman Gary Mickelson. But the law says both not to hire illegals and to avoid discrimination in hiring.

IBP spends $3,000 or more to recruit and train a production-line worker, only to lose the employee if the person is later found to be ineligible to work.

Now IBP may get to spot the illegal workers much more quickly, providing jobs to eligible workers and saving the company money.

In a voluntary test program, encompassing most of the meat-packing industry as well as other employers nationwide, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service will do computer checks on eligibility for the firms.

The program, announced by the INS in May, is an expansion of a controversial pilot project in California. Since its inception last October, about 11,500 new hires have been checked - and 25 percent of them found to be illegal. The INS began the pilot project in two southern California communities - Santa Ana and nearby City of Industry - known to attract many illegal aliens.

The project draws fire from civil libertarians and other critics, who see it as a step toward big-brother government intrusion.

But political pressure, these days, is on the side of enforcement. The high proportion of illegal immigrants seeking work in Santa Ana shows why, especially in California, the issue is so hot.

In many cases illegal immigrants, drawn by the American "job magnet," compete for work directly against American workers, argues Harvard University economist George Borjas, who has researched the issue extensively. This reduces economic opportunity for the least-skilled US citizens, he says.

Congress is moving to satisfy public demand for a solution to illegal immigration. Republicans plan to present President Clinton with a major bill on reforming illegal immigration. Mr. Clinton is expected to sign the bill, unless Congress includes a measure allowing states to prevent the children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools.

Both Senate and House bills authorize test programs for businesses similar to what the INS has been doing. The Senate version would make the procedure mandatory for employers; the INS says more voluntary testing and development is needed before taking that step.

Business groups refrain from blanket endorsement of the INS computer checks.

"Any increase in regulation can have pitfalls," says Cherae Bishop, a human-resources official at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "What if the INS says a worker is not eligible and he is - can the INS be held accountable?"

The INS, however, is stepping up raids at work-sites to uncover violations, which provides some firms with an incentive to cooperate in the pilot project.

The broadened test will include 1,000 employers, up from 233 California firms initially.